Snow Camp Reborn

Dedicated volunteers rebuild the historic and popular South Coast fire lookout that had gone up in smoke in the Biscuit Fire.

Story William Ferry

For folks in Curry County, the reminders of the Biscuit Fire are still there. The knobcone pines stand upright but are bare of bark and branch. The skeletal whiskers of greasewood still poke up everywhere. The scorched timbers and blackened rocks all serve as reminders of the inferno that visited the Siskiyou National Forest in 2002.

The Biscuit Fire was Oregon’s largest wildfire in more than a century and claimed the historic Snow Camp Fire Lookout cabin. With the fire, the Snow Camp structure became a thing of the past. And that's where it would have stayed except for a persevering group of volunteers.

The lookout crowned the 4223-foot peak of Snow Camp Mountain. The cabin, the US Forest Service's first recreational rental in the Northwest, was built in 1910 as a primitive observation post for seasonal fire spotting. Since then, there had been a series of replacement structures. Not only had Snow Camp been used by Forest Service seasonal help, but also during the war years it was pressed into service as an Aircraft Warning Station, one of more than 500 in Oregon.

In 1990, it became available to the public, and Don and Kathy Hartley and their friends were among the first to enjoy its isolated splendor. When they heard the news that it had burned in the Biscuit Fire, they felt like they'd each been sucker punched.

Don still recalls his first visit, "We'd left at mid-afternoon from our home in Crescent City, but due to detours and getting lost on Forest Service roads, it took us almost nine hours to do what should have taken three. When we got there around midnight, it was blowing, and the clouds had moved in. We had
a heck of a time seeing five feet in front of us."

But they became hooked the next morning at dawn when they saw the 360-degree view: it encompassed the Rogue, Chetco, and Smith river drainages within Oregon and California, as well as the Kalmiopsis Wilderness and a never-ending view of the Pacific. The Hartleys figured this was some kind of magic. Over the years they returned again and again and often brought friends and family.

Jerry Darbyshire has a different take on Snow Camp: He worked for the USFS as Resource Assistant when Snow Camp became a public rental and was there when the fire took it away.

"We did everything we could to protect that historic building," he says. "We wrapped and rewrapped it in fire retardant materials, sent crews to draw fire breaks nearby, and even tried to arrange some water drops." It was to no avail and the building became ashes on August 13, 2002.

The future looked grim for rebuilding due to diminished federal resources. Then Darbyshire received a call from Don two days after Snow Camp was destroyed.

"Here we were reeling from all that had happened during the fire, and this fellow calls to introduce himself as a long-time user of Snow Camp," says Darbyshire. "He also happened to be a general contractor and offered to help rebuild the lookout at no charge. This bowled us over."

Turns out that the Hartleys had a host of friends, all from Crescent City, who also wanted to help. Don explains, "Most of us had enjoyed Snow Camp over the years, and it was actually pretty easy to get the ball rolling." Friends like Dave Gustafson, Susan Wilson, Frank Reha, and Sally Smart had introduced the Hartleys to Snow Camp and wanted to help. The Hartleys in turn introduced Steve and Chris McCollum to the lookout and they wanted to help too. All of them had spent many nights on Snow Camp Mountain and often in one another's company.

The rebuilding of the cabin was not so straightforward as one would expect. Questions arose concerning which version to build and what materials to use. "It was Don who got us through," says Darbyshire, "He kept pushing for answers."

It wasn't easy either when the spirit of volunteerism met the drudgery of bureaucracy. That's when, now retired Harvey Timeus, a third generation Brookings resident and 33-year veteran of the Forest Service, played a role. He knew the backcountry as well as the ways of the Forest Service. "Timeus was the go-to guy on the ground," says Darbyshire, "as well as the go-between who kept things working between the volunteers and the Forest Service."

There were humorous moments too. "One weekend it was storming so hard, we had to sleep inside the lookout even though the walls had just been painted white and we couldn't touch them," says Kathy. "It was late at night when we called it quits and Wilson and Gustafson went out to their truck to sleep. That left eight of us, along with our chocolate lab, Gracie, to zigzag our sleeping bags on the floor of the 15-by-15-foot room. We got all tucked in when suddenly the door opened and Wilson shoved their two large dogs, Hank and Jake, in with us. The already tight fit was almost the least of it because Hank snored loudly and Jake decided that night time was play time."

When the project was completed, Darbyshire tallied the costs. He was amazed to see that the volunteers had provided 100 percent of the labor and the materials provided by the Forest Service amounted to only $30,000. "Considering how remote Snow Camp is and how much of a total rebuild it was, this was an amazing feat," he says.

The newly rebuilt lookout opened again as a rental within two years of the fire on June 26, 2004.

For future Snow Campers, you'll find this lookout is more than a small box atop a wilderness mountain. And you'll come to understand the magic that drove a determined group of friends to rebuild. Now everyone has the chance to once again enjoy Snow Camp Fire Lookout.

FYI: Snow Camp Fire Lookout is available to rent from mid-June to the end of September (weather permitting). It sleeps a maximum of five people and rents for $30 per night with a seven-night maximum.

Reservations can be made at least 10 days in advance by going online at www.recreation.gov and typing in "Snow Camp Lookout" or by calling 877-444-6777.

Lookout

Truck going to snow camp

Unloading lumber

Raising a wall

Snow Camp

Snow Camp Map

Oregon Coast November/December 2007

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